Since Israel joined UEFA, European powerhouses such as Barcelona, Juventus, Arsenal, Chelsea, Ajax Amsterdam and Bayern Munich have come to play in the Holy Land. Previously, Israel hosted friendlies with teams like Liverpool, Monchengladbach, Anderlecht, West Ham and Ipswich. But no team's arrival piqued interest as much as that of Hakoah Vienna in January 1924.
The Jewish sports club, founded in 1909 by cabaret librettist Fritz "Beda" Lohrne and dentist Ignaz Herman Korner, had 5,000 members at its peak, more than any other sports club in the world at the time. It had 16 divisions, and the soccer team was coached for a while by Scotsman Billy Hunter. Arthur Bar managed the soccer team and later went on to coach the Palestine national team under the British Mandate.
Many of Hakoah's players at the time would go on to be famous. Defender Bela Guttmann also played for the Hungarian national team and went on to coach Benfica in the 1960s to two European Cups. Erno Schwarz later served as the head coach of the United States' team in the 1950s. Defender Egon Pollack, an opera singer, eventually moved to Israel, led Maccabi Tel Aviv to its first championship and also coached Israel's national team.
Hakoah was riding high in 1923, playing English FA Cup finalist West Ham in a pair of friendlies. The match in Vienna ended 1-1, but Vienna trounced West Ham in England 5-0. Hakoah that year went on a tour of Egypt, and after beating teams in Cairo and Alexandria headed for Tel Aviv via Port Said with an entourage of 90 people.
In Tel Aviv, founded the same year as the Austrian club, Hakoah received a royal reception. Maccabi's Yosef Yekutieli organized the welcome, attended by High Commissioner Sir Herbert Samuel. Meir Dizengoff, head of the municipal council, hosted the team in city hall.
Haaretz editor Moshe Glickson wrote of Hakoah's visit to Tel Aviv on January 8: "A great crowd of thousands of people gathered this morning at 8 o'clock at the Tel Aviv train station to welcome the members of Hakoah and the tourists who came with them."
Hakoah players were hosted in private homes while the tourists stayed in hotels. Later, the Hakoah team visited Petah Tikva and Rishon Letzion, and were cheered everywhere they went.
Hakoah also came to play soccer, and its first rival was Maccabi Tel Aviv. The match was held on January 8 before 10,000 spectators on a pitch where the Levinsky market now stands, near the old central bus station.
Micky Wilson heard many stories from his father, Maccabi captain Abie Wilson, about that match. "It was in the winter, when it didn't stop raining like it does today," recalls Micky of his father's recounting. "The pitch was flooded so much they were afraid they wouldn't be able to hold the game. My grandfather [Shmuel Natan Wilson], who moved from the U.S., was the first contractor in Tel Aviv. He brought all his workers with wheelbarrows and earth to cover up the puddles, and that's how they prepared the pitch."
The game wasn't even close. Besides Wilson, a striker, and Shimon Ratner (Lumek ), who acted as player-coach, the rest of Maccabi's players were not on a par with Hakoah, which scored five goals. In the 81st minute, Pollack and Guttmann let Lumek score a consolation goal so that Maccabi could save face.
"Lumek himself came from Hakoah, so they had sympathy for him," says Wilson. "Maccabi was good then, playing against British teams which had players from the English professional league, but Hakoah was simply one of the best in Europe. Soccer then was played with a goalkeeper, two defenders, three midfielders and five strikers. Maccabi would kick the ball high and the strikers would try to control the ball. Hakoah played technical soccer with short passes, which made it hard for Maccabi."
From Tel Aviv, Hakoah traveled to Haifa to play against British soldiers. The game ended in a 1-1 draw, but a reporter from Haaretz wrote that the refereeing was disgraceful. "Every time the ball got close to the [British] goal, the referee would blow his whistle and find some excuse to stop Hakoah's attack. The referee also disallowed three Hakoah goals."
Many of Hakoah's stars moved to the U.S., and the team was eventually demoted before the Nazis shut it down in 1938. The club reopened after World War II and now has some 400 members. Its soccer team competes in a lower league under the name Maccabi Vienna. It has Jewish players like Alexander Pollak, Eli Natanov, Albert Stern, Daniel Stern and Avishai Zavlanov - but none of them play in a way reminiscent of the great stars of Hakoah Vienna who visited Palestine 87 years ago.